Olympics

Article excerpt

It was about 30 years ago that a sports writer in Baltimore wrote a letter to Tom Moore, then sports director of ABC, to suggest a different sort of sports show.

Baseball, football and boxing dominated TV sports in those days, and ABC was introducing the instant replay. Jim McKay, the Baltimore writer, suggested a special to display the drama that is common to all sports _ "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."

That led to Wide World of Sports, a series on individual sports that lasted for years with McKay as the anchor. Wide World of Sports led to ABC's Olympic Games telecasts, which became a legend for showing that sports drama was so remarkable it needed no enhancing.

McKay often spoke quietly or not at all in pressure moments. ABC added "up close and personal" stories behind the drama. Howard Cosell added controversy to the mix, interviewing Tommy Smith, who gave the clenched fist salute in 1968, and criticizing Olympic boxing officials in 1972.

Now, NBC is pouring all these ingredients ad nauseam into the Barcelona Olympics _ over dramatizing every event, repeating background stories until they have become up close and boring, criticizing the tiniest flaws of athletes and blowing controversial decisions out of proportion.

As a result, the 1992 Olympics have become what Barry Horn of The Dallas Morning News calls NBC's latest soap opera, "As the Olympic World Turns." Ma Perkins would have torn off her apron in disgust at the constant repetition of the story that the coach of Unified Team gymnast Svetlana Boginskaya committed suicide.

The over dramatizing begins with the annoying effort to drive the pressure moments home by delaying them _ in effect pressuring viewers to stick around through several sets of commercials. NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol said the emphasis on human drama is needed to increase ratings.

Evidently it's working. The early ratings reached 19.3, up from 16.8 in 1988. Each rating points represents 931,000 homes viewing the events. The ratings are needed for commericals to reach revenues of $500 million. Even with that, NBC could lose $30 million to $40 million because the cable Triplecast has been a flop.

NBC paid $401 million for the rights alone, plus $200 million for production and promotion. That resulted in an over emphasis on building drama to keep viewers, which has distorted the events to the point that I'm losing interest.

McKay let us learn the outcome of a competition as it happened, though it had been taped hours before, but he didn't tease us with constant delays. Bob Costas has done a solid job as anchor for NBC, often tempering the phony drama with under statement, but some of the broadcasters and experts have worn me out with shouting, emphasizing flaws and silly questions.

Just when it appeared Shannon Miller was getting ready to perform at Barcelona, for example, NBC cut to commercials, took us to a swimming race or some such, force fed us more commercials and finally allowed us to see the crucial vault.

The stories behind the athletes, which ABC called "up close and personal," are fine in themselves. They give us the perspective of what it takes to become an Olympic athlete.

That's good, but they don't have to yell in our ears in the midst of a race that American swimmer Nelson Diebel has overcome drugs and alcohol. Let us watch the race.

One of the silliest stories in the Barcelona Olympics so far was that of cyclist Inga Thompson, whose boyfriend has a "life threatening disease." During the same race, we also heard over and over about how the cyclists disliked Jeannie Longoprelli of France.

Longoprelli won as expected, because she clearly was the best when it came to the pressure moments.

There were others _ broadcaster Charlie Jones reminding us over and over that swimmer Pablo Morales dedicated his comeback to his mother, who died of cancer; gymnast Betty Okino, who gets rough treatment by her coach; and gymnast Trent Dimas had to overcome a 1991 injury. …